Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Don't Disturb the Dead [Shamya Dasgupta]

While there are flaws in Shamya Dasgupta's Don't Disturb the Dead (DDtD), a book on the Ramsay Brothers and their films, I am on the whole pleased because it was a volume that needed to be written. Most times, in the name of books related to the history of Indian cinema, we only get biographies, or rather hagiographies, of famous film stars. Also audiences, especially those born after the 80's, are unaware of the significant contribution, warts and all, made by the Ramsays towards acceptance of horror in the Indian context (Some young 'uns even think Indian horror initiated with Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot).

DDtD is thorough in its portrayal of the Ramsay heritage, starting with patriarch FU Ramsay (the family was originally called Ramsinghani and came from pre-partition Lahore. The surname was shortened to Ramsay for the convenience of the British clients at FU's radio store, and has stuck ever since). It chronicles how FU and later his children (Kumar, Tulsi, Shyam, Keshu, Gangu , Arjun and Kiran) got into film-making and how they hit upon their patented horror film formula. The making of a Ramsay film was literally a family affair, with the sons working together in various aspects and even the women of the house pitching in with the hospitality arrangements (Keshu's wife Kavita later did costume design for some films). Tulsi and Shyam were joint directors on most Ramsay flicks; from what we read here, Shyam was the more horror-focused, while Tulsi concerned himself with ensuring the right mix of other ingredients - song & dance, comedy, sexual frisson - that would make their films commercially viable. Keshu Ramsay after a point left the family and started his own production, dropping the Ramsay surname for the films he made, including several Khiladi ventures with Akshay Kumar and then the blockbuster Khakee (which he produced).

DDtD covers the making of several Ramsay features with special attention going to their landmark presentations including Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Purana Mandir (PM) and Veerana, and later their hugely popular tele-serial Zee Horror Show. There are enlightening interviews with Ramsay stars like Mohnish Bahl, Aarti Gupta-Surendranath and of course Aniruddha (Ajay) Agarwal, the iconic monster-man of several Ramsay features like PM, Saamri and Bandh Darwaza. All of them are very complimentary towards the Ramsay family, about the atmosphere in which those films were shot, how even under the conditions of low budget and short shooting schedules, they did the best they could. It was especially heartening to see input from Aarti Gupta. With Ramsay films like PM, Saamri and Tahkhana she was, for a short spell, the Scream Queen of Indian horror, but soon after, she quit acting, married ad-man Kailash Surendranath, and became a producer and well-known Mumbai socialite. One feared she would be dismissive of these links to her low-brow horror past, but she fondly recalls the warm convival spirit of the shoots, and even though she regrets the negative impact of doing low-budget horror on her acting career, she never has anything bad to say about her experience (unlike beefcake Hemant Tarzan Birje, who blames the Ramsays for his career decline - he did Tahkhana and Veerana with them - and refused to provide any input for the book).

The interviews with the Ramsay family members and their collaborators form the highlight of the book, for which the author must be commended. There is a good amount of anecdotal information presented with a refreshing absence of condescension towards the subject. It is also worthwhile to pick up the paperback for the several memorable stills collated from the shooting and publicity events, which will surely thrill Ramsay fans. However, repetitiveness and padding are an issue. Too many times we are made to hear that the Ramsay policy was to "make them cheap and fast", how their audience was restricted to adult males or young couples, their essential criteria for selecting lead actors being solely "how smart or sexy they looked". The other caveat is the stupendously boring extended exploration of the life and career of all the current generation Ramsay kids (of whom only Shyam's daughter Saasha is currently into horror).

A few things I would have liked to see here: a better critical appraisal of the films themselves. Some of the Ramsay films (like Dahshat and PM) are arguably superior to the others in terms of their construction and impact, and needed to be discussed in that context. Interviews with regular Ramsay stable actors like Deepak Parashar and Anil Dhawan would have been nice. While there is chapter devoted to how the Ramsays got their masks and latex props fabricated by a Mr. Chris Tucker (no relation to the Rush Hour actor, I presume) I wish more had been explored about the make-up work in their films (for instance, what was the semen-like goo covering evil guy Nevla when he emerges from his coffin in Bandh Darwaza?). It's great that Shamya could get quotes about the influence of Ramsay movies from famous film buffs like Sriram Raghavan, Ram Gopal Varma and Sajid Khan, but his repeated reliance on the opinion of blogger Beth Watkins is puzzling, considering she has no specific interest in Indian horror. It would have been more relevant to talk to Omar Ali Khan, who has reviewed a lot of Indian horror on his website, or to the people at Mondo Macabro who licensed several Ramsay films for their Bollywood Horror DVD sets.

Mr. Dasgupta also sometimes displays a degree of naive extrapolation that borders on ludicrous. While Aarti Gupta was apt for her parts in the Ramsay films, suggesting that she could otherwise have fitted into a pantheon of female Indian megastars including Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit is outright laughable. His speculations on the fate of the Ramsay family heritage and the future of their offspring should have also been left on the editing table.

Its misses notwithstanding, DDtD serves as a frequently entertaining and informative look at India's pioneers of the horror film and should definitely picked up by people interested in the topic.

A word of warning: Please skip the introduction written by a dolt called Jai Arjun Singh - it's rambling and pretentious, and more interested in flaunting the writer's knowledge of films than having anything relevant to say about the book that follows.


  1. A good and fair review of a book that I felt was something of a missed opportunity. A blow by blow account of the production of each of their films would have been far more worthwhile and useful. Some of the more interesting films - Dak Bangla for example - barely get a mention. And while he promises to go into more depth about some of the fascinating but obscure cast members - like Jasmin, for example - the reality is that she barely gets a couple of sentences.

    1. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Pete :)

    2. You're welcome! Thanks for the plug...

    3. Pete, would you care to share what you know about the material you got from the Ramsays for Mondo's releases of their films? Were they HD masters? Were they sourced from the original camera negative or a dupe negative? Ideally what would you like to have get from them - in terms of which films in their catalog and what kind of material - film elements / direct masters?

      Btw last night I attended and official book launch and was fortunate enough to get autographs from some of the Ramsays as well as Ajay Agrawal on my Mondo DVD's, so now they are even greater Collector's Items :)